Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Method Acting Helped Me Become a Better Writer

This week the Rockville 8 is pleased to welcome Karen Cantwell, author of the popular Barbara Marr mystery series. Karen has just released her first romantic suspense novel, Keep Me Ghosted, to rave reviews. Welcome, Karen!

Like many authors I know, I took my first jab at novel writing in elementary school. I was very proud of my original manuscript titled, The Adventures of Frog and Mr.Toad. Ahem. Well, imagine my distress when I discovered a little book called The Wind in the Willows. Shattered, I gave up the goal of becoming an award-winning novelist, and set my sights on a more realistic ambition: acting.

During my first year at the University of California, San Diego, I declared myself a drama major and began taking classes to learn the craft. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter was, that I was a terrible actress. Really. I was awful. I probably turned more than one acting coach to drink. Sadly, my performances lacked that important element: talent.

Aha, but my college tuition wasn't entirely wasted. I learned something useful. Lack of acting talent aside, my theatre training those years at UCSD has eventually proved helpful as I have resurrected the dream to write fiction. The drama department taught "The Method," also known as "Method Acting," originated by Konstantin Stanislavski, and then further developed by Lee Strasberg and employed by students of the famous Actors Studio. Per www.MethodActingStrasberg.com: "The Method trains actors to use their imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with uniqueand original behavior, creating performances grounded in the human truth of the moment." Now, we're writers – we already use our imaginations! So, no big epiphany there. But this process of accessing senses and emotions to create unique and original character performances can definitely be translated to the writing experience.

As I began writing in earnest, I found myself naturally applying this training. Who knows the character better than me? No one. But I've found a writer can write from afar or from within – and writing from within is much like Method Acting. To write from within, I get into each character's skin, and write directly from their viewpoints. In polishing drafts, I can always tell when I've failed to write from this approach. A character will say or do something that isn't typical – not believable for that character. Readers will pick up on such anomalies, pulling them from the story, and that's the last thing an author wants.

A great exercise to help access your characters is to spend some time (it doesn't have to be extreme, but the more specific, the better) not only creating back story for each of your characters, but to write lists that flesh them out – their favorite colors, books, songs, musical artists; their dreams, considered failures or successes. Are they homebodies or travelers? How do they react to stressful situations? Are they talkative or quietly reserved? Do they consider themselves lucky or unlucky? How do they view themselves vs. how others view them? You may never actually use any of this information in your novels, but the more you create the character with this information, the more "real" they will become for you, and the easier it will be to access your character when writing.

When I sit down each day, it can take me a good half-hour to hour to actually settle into the minds and souls of my characters, and during this time, the writing is slower and more arduous. But as I utilize Method Writing – a term that actually has been coined – the characters begin to write themselves, as does the story.

Writers and actors do share a common goal – they both seek to entertain. And if you approach your writing from that perspective, and utilize some of the same tools, you may find your creative works will benefit greatly.

I have been writing plays and short stories for many years, some of which were published in various college literary magazines. In 2010, my short story “The Recollections of Rosabelle Raines,” was published in the mystery anthology Chesapeake Crimes: They Had it Comin’ available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or directly from the publisher, Wildside Press.

But I had always wanted to write a novel. I found that more difficult. Finally, a few years ago I finished my first novel, Take the Monkeys and Run, a comedy-mystery which was inspired, to some degree by a true monkey sighting. I followed that up with a Barbara Marr short story collection, The Chronicles of Marr-nia, and two more mystery novels, Citizen Insane and Silenced by the Yams.

Because I love to laugh as well as make other people laugh, I have the most fun imagineable writing the character Barbara Marr as well as her friends and adversaries. When I set out to write these books, I knew I wanted to write something that readers would say, “Now that was FUN.” I HOPE I have achieved that goal. And if I did, please feel free to drop me a line at and let me know! I love to hear from readers.

Like her most popular character, Barbara Marr, Karen is a mother living in the suburbs. Unlike Barb, Karen has never found monkeys in her trees or a severed head in her neighbor’s basement, and for this, Karen is extremely thankful.

You can read more about Karen and her books at her website: KarenCantwell.com, or check out her Amazon Author Page.


  1. Thanks for visiting us, Karen!

    I'm always keen to hear that writers write the books that they love. As a reader, I think it shows if an author had fun crafting her novel. I'm glad fun was a key part of writing your series! And of course it was fun to write! Your adaptation of Method Acting sounds like it sure makes it easier to get in the chair.

  2. Hi - Karen posting as anonymous (having some issue with my Google account) Thank you, Nichole! I'm not sure if it helps me get in the chair, but it does help me STAY once I get there. :-)

  3. Karen! I love this approach! I've never really done a "character interview" but I intend to do some methodology for my next story. Having a better sense of who my characters are and what they will and won't do seems like a recipe for success!

  4. Thanks for visiting with us this week, Karen. Great insights. Love your application of method acting to writing fiction. Brilliant. Spending time with those characters and getting inside their heads is imperative to telling a good story and telling their story. It helps us connect with the characters and thus help our readers connect with them. Enjoyed your post! Thank you. ;0)